Picture the person who slurps down an oyster with lemon caviar on a boat ride to a private island for a nearly five-hour dinner.
Not feeling a lot of sympathy? Just wait until you meet the characters of director Mark Mylod’s “The Menu,” in theaters Nov. 18.
The fine dining horror-satire follows couple Margot and Tyler (Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicholas Hoult) and a cast of stuck-up side characters as they eat at Hawthorn, an ultra-luxury restaurant run by the ruthless, self-serious Chef Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes). Slowik, or just “Chef” to his cult-like group of kitchen staff, has prepared quite a shocking menu for the 11 guests hand-picked to dine with him on this particular night. As Slowik starts to reveal his intentions for the evening, the frightened guests come to realize that most of them may have been invited for all the wrong reasons.
A social satire skewering the wealthy elite is a fitting choice for Mylod. He’s best known for directing TV — his credits include “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” both shows that love poking fun at the excesses of the rich and powerful.
Unfortunately, in “The Menu,” the story’s setup is so extreme that the film lacks the nuance and humanity that fuels substantive social satire. As far as social commentary goes, the film doesn’t leave audiences with much to reflect on, besides the fact that spending $1,250 on dinner is cringe (which you probably knew anyway). What it does have to offer is the kind of wildly unrealistic, albeit entertaining, comedic moments well-served by its crazy plot — and standout performances from both Taylor-Joy and Fiennes.
Fiennes remains tender beneath the surface of his obsessive chef, while Taylor-Joy imbues her witty, cheeseburger-loving, “girl next door” (as her boyfriend, Tyler, who invited her, literally calls her) with a combination of kindness and self-protectiveness.
Audiences don’t find nearly as layered characters in the rest of the film’s cast. With some of those broad characters, “The Menu” does effectively achieve humor, if not substance. The deliciously cringe-worthy food critic Lillian Bloom (Janet McTeer) evaluates every aspect of her meal with head nods, over-wrought word salads, and lots of unnecessary references to “emulsions” and “biomes.” Meanwhile, her magazine editor Ted (Paul Adelstein) falls over himself to please her. McTeer’s tongue-in-cheek performance and some moments of smart dialogue make Bloom a largely successful comedic foil to Slowik.
But most other diners are too flat and stereotypical to be either funny or to effectively satirize anything. A trio of drunk, disrespectful tech bros have few defining qualities besides being terrible to their wives. A snooty elderly couple aren’t cruel or loathsome enough to warrant their gory punishment, nor is their inability to identify the dishes they’ve eaten at Hawthorn particularly funny.
“The Menu” attempts to give notes of humanity to Margot’s boyfriend, Tyler. But his character ricochets between such wild extremes — sympathetic, nerdy “foodie” and sociopathic man-child — that the end result is just off-putting.
The film’s horror elements are arguably the most successful; it maintains a strong sense of suspense throughout and builds to some satisfying, if bonkers, payoffs. Mylod enlists cinematographer Peter Deming, who worked on the David Lynch-directed “Mulholland Drive” (2001) as well as the 2017 “Twin Peaks” series. Deming creates clean, eerie, close-up shots of Slowik’s exquisite, if disturbing, culinary creations, wrapping the film’s violence up in a stylish flair. An elegant, sometimes-operatic, string-heavy score by Colin Stetson maintains tension throughout the film, adding to Hawthorn’s self-important mystique and keeping the audience from getting too comfortable.
“The Menu” might make you crave a hamburger or think twice before boarding a ferry to a private island with no cell service. But once the loose ends are tied up and the credits roll, it leaves you less than satisfied.
Directed by Mark Mylod. Written by Will Tracy and Seth Reiss. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Nicholas Hoult. At Boston Common, Fenway. 107 minutes. R (violence and gore, language throughout).
Joy Ashford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow them on Twitter @joy_ashford.